Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Legally Speaking: What's In A Name? As It Turns Out, A Lot

From another paper.

9/23/2008 12:58 PM
By John G. Browning
During a recent appearance on Dallas' local ABC affiliate, WFAA-TV, I took some calls live from viewers seeking legal advice.

Given the state of the economy, I wasn't surprised by the calls from people facing foreclosure, job layoffs, or mounting credit and debt. What surprised me were the multiple phone calls I received asking about name changes.

Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with name changes. In fact, I think the celebrities who have saddled their kids with weird monikers have engaged in a form of child abuse, and I won't be surprised to see a wave of legal name changes in the future from such kids as Pilot Inspektor Lee (offspring of "My Name Is Earl" star Jason Lee) or Moxie Crimefighter Jillette (child of magician Penn Jillette).

Celebrities, in fact, seem to have cornered the market on odd names. The late Frank Zappa, of course, named two of his children Dweezil and Moon Unit. Director Robert Rodriguez has children named Rocket, Rebel, Racer and Rogue. Actress Jessica Alba recently named her daughter Honor, while Korn frontman Jonathan Davis chose the name "Pirate" for his newborn - arrgh!

Actress Rachel Griffiths and "Rocky" and "Rambo" icon Sylvester Stallone, elected to stick their children with names guaranteed to produce quizzical looks if not playground beatdowns, naming their kids "Banjo" and "Sage Moonblood," respectively.

Musicians seem to be among the worst offenders. Late INSX lead singer Michael Hutchence had a daughter name Tiger Lily Heavenly Hiraani. John Mellencamp, meanwhile, spawned Speck Wildhorse Mellencamp. Rocker and activist Bob Geldof may have raised awareness of hunger in Africa, but somebody needs to raise his awareness of childhood teasing: he named his daughters Peaches, Pixie, and Fifi-Trixiebelle. For crying out loud, Bob, they're children, not French poodles!

One of the best known examples of celebrities run amok in the baby name department is the product of actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin's union: Apple.

Says Mr. Martin, "There's nothing weird about calling your baby Chewbacca if that's what you want to call your baby. It's no stranger than Sarah. A name is just a noise." (I respectfully disagree - no matter how hairy your baby may be, or how big of a "Star Wars" fan you are, don't name your kid Chewbacca).

While I'm not aware of any famous offspring named Chewbacca (or Han Solo, for that matter), some celebrities have let their sci-fi/comic book obsessions get the better of them. How else would you explain Kal-el Coppola, the son of actor Nicholas Cage, who borrowed from the true birth name of Superman?

And let's not overlook little Harley Quinn Smith, daughter of director/writer/actor Kevin Smith. He named his little girl after the Joker's sidekick from "Batman: The Animated Series." At least these kids can grow up with their own action figures.

Celebrities, however, aren't the only ones to manifest their passions in name choices. Do you really need to ask Brazilian soccer player Creedence Clearwater Couto what his parents' favorite band was? Or, for that matter, little Metallica Tomaro (daughter of Michael and Karolinn Tomaro)?

Two different boys - one in Michigan, one in Texas - have been named Espn (after sports network ESPN), and I'm pretty sure that the parents of Wrigley Fields are hardcore baseball fans. And it's not just the parents shouldering the responsibility for such choices.

Sometimes individuals themselves change their names in honor of their obsession. For example, a "Phantom of the Opera" fan had her name legally changed to that of the character, Christine Daae. A member of the U.S. National Guard who is evidently a huge "Transformers" fan changed his name to Optimus Prime. In 1994, Santa Barbara resident Peter Eastman Jr. legally became "Trout Fishing in America" (after the music group or the book by Richard Brautigan, I'm not sure).

Sometimes, people have pursued name changes to make a point. In 1998, a Tennessee politician enhanced his chances of beating his statehouse rival by legally becoming Byron Low Tax Looper. In 2006, a PETA staffer named Chris Garnett decided to show his opinion of the Colonel by changing his name to Kentucky Fried Cruelty.com.

Meanwhile, Michael Howard had had enough with the bureaucracy and overcharges of his bank in England. Accordingly, he had his name changed to "Yorkshire Bank PLC Are Fascist Bastards," in part because he wanted that printed on checks made out to him.

Many of the stranger names encountered by registrars and bureaus of vital statistics, however, can only be chalked up to twisted senses of humor or downright cruelty. Authors Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback pored over census records from 1790 to 1930 for their 2008 book Bad Baby Names.

Those labors turned up names like Candy Stohr, Mary Christmas, Garage Empty, Please Cope, Happy Day, King Arthur and many others. Others make little sense, like Fish and Chips; Number 16 Bus Shelter; Sex Fruit; Violence; and Yeah Detroit.

No less a figure than former Texas governor James Stephen Hogg named his daughter Ima; let's hope the poor girl didn't develop an eating disorder.

Maybe some of these parents took their cues from the classic Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue," in which the protagonist's estranged father defends his choice by saying "I knew you'd have to get tough or die/And it's the name that helped make you strong."

But at least one judge has taken strong action against a parent's questionable choice in children's names. Judge Rob Murfitt of Wellington, New Zealand, encountered a 9-year-old girl involved in a custody battle; her parents had christened her "Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii."

Judge Murfitt made the girl a ward of the court so that her name could be changed, after hearing testimony about her embarrassment over the bizarre appellation. He observed, "The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child's parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a special disability and handicap, unnecessarily."

I've been called upon in the past to help make a child's life easier through a name change. On one occasion, I successfully petitioned a court to change the name for a boy who was constantly tormented by his peers; it seems Mr. and Mrs. Krueger had sorely underestimated the lasting popularity of a certain "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie villain when they chose the name Frederick for their son (memo to the Lecters: anything but Hannibal, please: school cafeterias will be tough enough for your child to deal with as it is).

So what does it take to change your name legally in Texas? Well, first you have to actually file a petition (a lawsuit) in the county where the adult or child desiring the name change resides. It must be sworn to, and must give the full name being requested by the petitioner as well as the reason why the change is being sought.

To make sure the person seeking the change is not doing so in order to evade justice or any outstanding legal obligations, there are additional requirements.

These include: indicating whether the petitioner has been convicted of a felony, or is required to register as a sex offender; a legible and complete set of the petitioner's fingerprints on a fingerprint card; full name, sex, race, date of birth, driver's license number, Social Security number, and any assigned FBI number or state reference to a criminal history record that would identify the petitioner; as well as the case number and court for any offense higher than a Class C misdemeanor.

Bear in mind, changing one's name in order to avoid liabilities incurred under a previous moniker won't be permitted by a judge. But getting a fresh start in life after a parent stuck you with a name that doomed you to years of abuse in school - say "Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii," for example - that'll be justified every time.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at: jbrowning@gordonrees.com

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